Hotshot hasn’t been promoting with all six of its members since 2016, but with the long-awaited reunion of Wanna One member Sungwoon set for 2019, they have the chance to go from ‘nugu?’ to notable. In the meantime, they are testing the waters of a reinvented sound with their latest mini-album, Early Flowering. Their first album in three years, the album’s tracks serve as a competent but unremarkable experiment. The five new songs fail to live up to their last single, 2017’s promising “Jelly,” but they do cement the new sound of a group that was previously defined by hard-hitting hip-hop.

Of all the groups to capitalize on the wave of survival shows in order to revive their career, Star Crew Entertainment‘s Hotshot might be the most zealous. While all the members of Nu’est famously competed against rookies on season two of “Produce 101,” the members of Hotshot have taken a divide-and-conquer approach.

Sungwoon and Taehyun competed on Produce 101, while Timoteo and Hojung worked their way through The Unit: Idol Rebooting Project and rapper Yoonsan auditioned for Show Me the Money 6. Their leader Junhyuk has already been through the reality show circus, having competed on Superstar K2. Sungwoon and Hojung ultimately made their show’s final groups, debuting for a second time with Wanna One and UNB respectively. And though he didn’t make the final cut, Taehyun was also given an opportunity to promote as a member of fan-made group JBJ.

Their time apart gave Hotshot members the space and resources to discover and grow their individual strengths, as well as play with new music and dance styles. Hotshot’s 2014 debut song, “Take a Shot,” starts with the braggadocios lines:

Every time, you’ll suffocate in one breath, no mercy
Your ears and breath will be pulled to me, you’re fancy
I’m the man, I’m the man, yeah best man

Their following work generally stuck along the same lines, with generic juvenile lyrics about how great they are, with the exception of “Midnight Sun,” a feeble attempt at a party-starter jam. As a group, Hotshot members had little chance to showcase different sides to themselves, such as depth of emotion, brightness, sexiness, or lyrical dance skills. Their choice to split up and tackle survival programs allowed them to shine at all of the above. Hojung, Sungwoon, Taehyun, and Timoteo’s success on their respective shows informed the work on their latest album—evident in the decision to swerve their swaggering, immature image to emotional dance-pop.

Since Hotshot is about to make their biggest-ever push to recruit new fans, it makes sense they’d want to emulate sounds that would attract people discovering them for the first time post-survival shows. Hojung, Sungwoon, Taehyun and Timoteo all had notable performances during their TV stints, but Taehyun and Timoteo in particular had breakout dance stages that seemed to influence Hotshot’s present sound.

On The Unit, Timoteo was team leader for the self-producing challenge, creating the vision and choreography for his group’s performance to a mix of Zedd and Alessia Cara‘s “Stay” and Vixx‘s “Chained Up.” While mentor Rain had his doubts about the song choice, the vocoder-heavy EDM-pop hit proved the perfect choice for Timoteo and his team. They managed to execute choreography that started out soft and lyrical before exploding into powerful, precise movements. Timoteo was highly praised for the artistic final product.

Taehyun also had a breakout dance moment on Produce 101. Known as a powerful krumper from his audition, Taehyun took on the role of team leader for the position group challenge, despite not really wanting the responsibility. Once elected, however, he was instrumental in coming up with choreography to a remix of Ed Sheeran‘s “Shape of You,” a pop song with strong tropical house and dancehall influences. His group chose him as center, with teammate Kim Donghan noting that Taehyun’s expressiveness when krumping translated well and captivated the audience in a slick, sexy song. The resulting performance was one of the most iconic of the Produce franchise as it was the first time the audience called for an encore.

In Early Flowering, all the songs are pop with no trace of hip-hop in sight. In fact, rapper Yoonsan doesn’t even really rap. On all five tracks, his verses are more talk-singing smoothed over with autotune. “Print” and “Body Talks” have tropical house beats. “Better” combines a funk bassline, plucky country-like guitar, whistling, snaps—basically all the infectious, earworm tricks in the book—into a surprisingly successful dance-pop ditty. “Paradise” relies strongly on a repetitive electronic hook and effects. All these songs arguably share similarities with the Western dance-pop songs that suited Timoteo and Taehyun so well.

Mellow ballad and title track “I Hate You” is the most different on the album. Its mid-tempo pace with electronic effects punctuating the driving drum beat gives the group the ability to create an emotional, flowing choreography. The song has less Western influences, but is in fact structurally quite similar to songs released by Hotshot’s survival groups, such as UNB’s “Only One,” JBJ’s “Call Your Name,” and Wanna One’s “Beautiful” and “Light.” The song stars with a slow, stripped down intro, modulating higher in the pre-chorus with added beats and effects amping up to the chorus.

Clearly, Hotshot is taking cues from their work in separate groups as well as their time on TV. JBJ went quite sexy with their debut song “Fantasy,” and Hotshot definitely added a more risque element with the lyrics of “Body Talks.” “I Hate You” also dwells on complex feelings and plumbs emotional depths that the group had not reached for, while “Print” aims for vibrancy and brightness similar to JBJ’s “My Flower” or Wanna One’s “Energetic.” Much like Wanna One, JBJ and UNB have not stuck to one concept, and Hotshot also tries on different vibes with each track on the album, from sexy to fun to funky with varying degrees of success.

Their line distribution has also changed with the strengthening of certain members’ skills. It is true that the group is down a member. But visual Hojung has more lines that ever after proving his popularity on national television. While remains a popular K-pop fan complaint that certain members are overlooked, Hojung has the stats to prove it. In “I’m a Hotshot” and “Midnight Sun,” he had only two lines each. His lines increased for the dark, manly five-member comeback “Jelly,” a concept that suited him, and he has continued to get more parts on “Early Flowering” regardless of the song’s concept. Along with Taehyun, Hojung is great at expressions and his sweet voice is a perfect fit for pre-chorus builds or killing parts, elements he utilized during his time on “The Unit” and with UNB.

Ultimately, “Early Flowering” is a decent trial run for Hotshot’s new pop sound before Sungwoon returns to the group. The tracks mostly lack memorable melodies or key parts that help them stand out. While pleasant to listen to, the tracks never seem to cohere into something better than the sum of their parts. B-sides “Body Talks” and “Better” are the most catchy, certainly possessing a smooth sophistication and sexiness. However, these songs lack the impact or emotion that Hotshot members have earned a reputation for and that could really connect them with new fans.

It will be interesting to see how Sungwoon’s presence changes their concept and dynamic. Hopefully, once they have all six members again, they are able to find produce a striking song more similar to “Jelly” that lets them play up their newly discovered or developed strengths. Because once Sungwoon is back, the pressure will be on for Hotshot’s next comeback to capitalize on all their survival show screen time and to make or break their group’s career.

(Color Coded Lyrics, Sports Seoul, Twitter, Youtube [1][2][3][4]. Images via Star Crew Entertainment.)